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Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

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I recently saw a meat thermometer that has Bluetooth technology and is iPhone, iPad and iPod compatible, leading me to consider whether we’ve all gone absolutely barking nuts.

Or have we? You know I’m old school when it comes to cooking. I’m not above corner-cutting from time to time, especially nostalgic corner-cutting (I grew up slurping on canned Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, and I still dig slicing it along the handy grooves courtesy of the aluminum). And I’m not above getting an education on what’s truly useful.*

But that’s the issue, really:

1) How much time and effort does all of the gadgetry really save, and

2) How much of our sensory and instinctual skills get surrendered to Calphalon?

We’ve discussed the second question, especially after I wrote this post last summer and this one a few weeks ago. And I alternate between ‘How did our great-grandmothers cook so well, with nine kids and without non-stick casseroles?’ and ‘But if they had Amazon Prime, wouldn’t they jump on it like Bond on a blonde?’ Still, it’s worth more discussion, especially this time of year.

I love my candy thermometer. I’m glad I don’t have to drop a little water into my syrup to see if it forms a ball. I’m further glad I don’t have to determine the temperature of my oven by sprinkling flour on the underside of a pie plate and watching it go from tan to brown, or doing the same with a sheet of paper, or—surely for the asbestos-skinned among women—plunging my hand into its depths and counting how many seconds I can stand it before having to pull my hand out.**

When it comes to Thanksgiving, a friend put it well when he asked why we should ‘spend a boatload of money when just a pan, a dollar store baster and a good recipe is all you need.’ For the most part, I’m inclined to agree. I like becoming pretty well engrossed in the experience. I need to get my hands dirty and create. But I’m curious about your standpoint.

Does it depend on the gadget, the skill or even the person in question? How far back do you scale when you cook a holiday meal? If you’re a gadgeteer, tell me truthfully whether you simply appreciate the newness and coolness of the state-of-the-art utensil (I understand), or if you find it significantly more helpful than the low-tech one.

And to me the bigger question is how much technology to accept, because it stands to reason that for each new gadget, a skill is often enough left behind. As I told my friend, spending money aside, I’m worried that buying devices we don’t necessarily need may be training us to trust them instead of our own five senses and instincts; and that it will be a dark day when we don’t know if something’s cooked (or raw, or burned) unless a device tells us so. That would be a millennia of human understanding in the toilet. The fact that GPSes sometimes tell people to drive into lakes and people bloody DO it tells me we’re on that road.

In my mind, we’re already detached from so much that is elemental. By buying and buying into everything new for the kitchen, do we risk losing part of the wisdom of our ancestors? Part of our humanity?

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*At a height of five foot three, I’m not above much.

**Seriously. These methods were as common as smallpox.

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Thanksgiving’s just a few weeks away. And while I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony, I am one to give credit, and thanks, where they’re due; and this seemed like the perfect time.

So. A schtickle of backstory.

I started blogging in 2011, on a lark, at the suggestion of a friend. Why? Because I just sorta decided (on another lark)* one day that I was going to be a food writer. Which makes no conceivable sense: my background is in business writing and editing, and I had precisely zero experience writing from my own point of view, let alone about food. I wrote crowd-pleasers like website copy, newsletters and fundraising appeals. Food was just something I thought about a lot and talked about a lot. Okay, a ton. But still. Write about it?

I knew very little about food blogs (still do, because I want to be sure to maintain my own voice), but I knew I didn’t want it to be just narcissistic blather, or to be cliche (how many blogs are out there with titles like ‘Fun With Cilantro’? Not that cilantro’s not fun, mind you; it’s a veritable RIOT at office potlucks, but I don’t want to oversell it, either). I also have no formal training of any kind in taking pictures; I don’t know a shutter speed from an F stop (is that the term?).

Since I’m clueless about technology, another friend set me up on WordPress. When he was done he said, ‘You’re ready.’ ‘What do I do now?’ ‘Well…you write something.’ ‘Right…yeah.’

I’d like to say I sat down and cheerfully banged out a stellar post within an hour.** I didn’t. But I did like my first post, rough as it reads to me now, which was an argument against letting outside forces dictate what you were and were not capable of creating in the kitchen.*** I’m a sociology nerd, too. I love ingredients and I love recipes, I do, you guys know I do. But I’ll always be more fascinated by how we approach food as a culture, what it means in our lives, how we shape it, and how it shapes us. Lucky for me there are so many of you out there, Eve’s Apple’s**** lovely crew of faithful readers, who like to talk about it with me.

My hat is off to friends and family who have supported me from the get-go, who read over the first few posts and offered feedback, coaching (see technology quip above), and recipes. And it’s off once more with an audacious flourish to the friends I’ve never met, most notably my LinkedIn food tribe, with whom I speak daily. I’m honored to have readers throughout the U.S. and all over the world, the collective wisdom of ranchers, retired farm wives, bankers, caretakers, artisans and many more, all of whom can discuss with me everything from why we don’t handcraft the way people did 100 years ago to the beauty of organic lard.

You trust me with your photos, your recipes, your memories, and your questions. You’re respectful of each other’s opinions and offer advice to each other. You’re willing to sift through my semi-coherent ramblings every week and encourage, counsel and make me laugh. You more often call my posts articles, or essays, not just pedestrian ‘blog posts’ (which is all they are), which is humbling. I can throw any topic out there—and goodness knows I do—and you all take it and run like slippery midnight bandits.

You want to celebrate with me the macro (farm stands versus supermarkets ), the micro (the smoke point of olive oil) and the warm underbelly (Halloweens of long ago). You get what I mean when I talk about the majesty of the simple. In my mind, you are the authorities when it comes to food, and sharing it, and I continue to be astonished at how much you have to teach me. You have made my world bigger, and have made me a more competent writer. I’m grateful to have this forum so I can keep learning.

Thank you. You’ve taught a girl typing alone at the beach so much.

*Truth be told, this one was a sparrow.

**I’d also like a pony.

***Here’s how much of a technodweeb I am: I didn’t even know you could add photos to posts. Consequently the first fat handful of posts were photo-free. Sorry about that.

****I almost called it Semisweet, but that name was taken. Not the bummer I thought it was 🙂

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Classic adage:

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.

-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, lawyer and epicure

Modern adage and same thing:

Walk me through your checkout line and I’ll tell you who you are.

-Elinor Lipman, novelist and presumably epicure

Some say the surest way to learn about past cultures is not by examining their history books, but by examining their cookbooks. Point well taken: The food on your great-grandparents’ table was a manifestation of their priorities, skills and resources. From planning it to growing, harvesting, cooking and serving it, their world and worldview were distilled down to a particular bread and soup. And it’s no different for us today. The food we choose to eat reflects who we are, how we live and what matters to us.

I’ve written before about my mom’s incredible banana bread above. I love it because my mom made it, because it’s said incredible, and because it’s a scratch recipe. That tells you I value 1) caring effort (especially when, in her case, the smell of raw bananas turns her stomach) 2) good food 3) integrity. I still make it today because all of those points matter to me. They are at the heart of who I am.

Think about what you eat and what it says about you. Maybe you have to have your cherry pie with whipped cream because that’s how it was always served at your aunt’s July 4th barbecue. You miss her, and eating cherry pie this way brings her close to you. Maybe you love fried conch. It’s your dream to live in Bermuda, and fried conch transports you to those pink beaches for a few moments. Or maybe you avoided your uncle’s killer yummy baklava until you were 30 because you knew it all but floated in a pound of melted butter and you were afraid you’d love it and bloat up to manatee levels. This shows you loved good food but you were body image conscious.*

Recently I met an Australian in his early 60s. I asked him what he grew up eating, and suddenly he lit up like a firefly, telling me about the fish he and his family caught—speared, actually!—when he was young. And although he had lived in the States for a very long while and had not eaten some of those varieties of fish in decades, he told me he could still remember how they tasted. His love of adventure, fresh food, his homeland, and his family came through with every word and gesture.

It’s a good rule of thumb, actually: Just met someone new and want to get to know him? Ask him what dinnertime was like at his house. Watch his expression and listen carefully to the words he chooses to describe it. His answer will reveal a lot about him, I promise you.

Let’s go one step further: I read about a food historian who could compile a family’s story—its heritage, its strengths and weaknesses, even its dirty laundry—with astonishing accuracy, simply by hearing what that family ate every Thanksgiving. Food and culture are hardwired.

That godawful string bean casserole with the onion topping makes it onto your Thanksgiving every year even though you hate it. You make it because your family loves it, and you love them. That says a lot about you, doesn’t it?

What dishes, flavors and ingredients are essential components of what make you, you?

***

project: you, me and the world: Reminder, everybody—the deadline for your recipes is June 27, 2013. I’m getting some fantastic stuff. Keep them coming 🙂

* My obscure references aren’t always about me!

/okay, fine, this one is too.

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A portion of Deal Lake, which almost surrounds Interlaken.

There are many things—garishly colored bug juice, for one—that are pretty much appreciated by kids alone. Autumn, on the other hand, is for grownups. I don’t think any of us can appreciate autumn until we’re finally allowed to disassociate it from having to go back to school. As much as I love summer, autumn is delicious, sensuous in a way that July and August can’t compare—a dazzling, aging beauty, at one moment exuberant with passion and color and at another wistful, melancholy. While summer is two-dimensional, a childlike, right-now-in-the-moment Eden, autumn sees its fate across the calendar. Is there beauty in resignation? Maybe so. I think it’s this inherent wisdom in the season that gives it its sweetness.

In autumn I love walking through my hometown, a place in which, to paraphrase the adage, you can hardly see the town for the trees. It’s a strictly residential community, and to look at an aerial-view map, you’d think Interlaken was a forest. Its trees, many 100 years old or more, are enveloping and comforting. Peering up through their rustling leaves on a late-autumn afternoon and seeing thick, heavy, soot-grey clouds is thrilling, the way, as a kid, you loved watching the Wicked Witch of the West on television as long as your mom’s arms were tight around you.

Leaves in the lake.

We had just begun to enjoy autumn here at the Jersey Shore when Hurricane Sandy hit. And sadly, it took most of the leaves with it by the time it was through with us. Still, I took a walk on Thanksgiving Day to sink into the season, and let it sink into me, before the holidays eclipsed it. The park I visited is in Oakhurst, just a couple of miles inland, where autumn’s stark beauty was everywhere.

Sycamore branch.

Pasture and farmhouse.

Windfall.

Sycamore and pasture.

Today I bought local unfiltered apple cider and had a taste. It was as mellow as the autumn sky. And soon I will be baking a cider cake, making a cider buttercream icing for it, having friends and family over to eat it up with me—and making autumn last just a little bit longer.

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My neighbor, Mr. Cook, is to me an example of how to live.

That’s his flag above, which he puts out at dawn, and takes in at dusk, every single day of the year.

Mr. Cook tells me he’s lived in his house since the 1950s, when he was our tiny town’s fire chief. In those days, many of the houses along my street were home to firemen. When the bell sounded from the fire house across the street, the men would hear it and run to gear up and go. To this day, when he sees activity there, he slowly heads over to get in on it. And our fearless boys, young enough to be his kids and grandkids, treat him like a returning hero.

Retired for many years now, Mr. Cook keeps active in dozens of ways. Dancing is his favorite pastime. Every spring he drives to a handful of different town halls up and down the shoreline and picks up a copy of their summer events schedule. Then he goes home, sits on his little porch in one of those white plastic stackable chairs you can buy outside the Home Depot, and details where and when all of the senior dances will be held. He never misses one, and let me tell you—as a single, mobile gentleman in his 80s, his dance card gets filled. Each morning he tells me how it went. Music, socializing? Not a big deal. To him, it’s pretty much a numbers game: ‘I danced with eight ladies last night!’ he’ll say. I think ten is his personal best.

Mr. Cook also travels annually to visit the surviving members of his company from his days as a World War II soldier. (That’s not a typo. He still keeps in touch with his comrades—over sixty years later.) He had a bonus a few years back when he went to the southwest for an army reunion and danced with, as he put it, ‘lots of cowgirls.’

He makes pancakes for himself every Sunday morning without fail. (You’re getting a sense of what kind of man this is, right?) I like to bring a piece of whatever it is I bake to him. Later I’ll ask how he liked it. He always has the same response: an eye twinkle and a ‘Keep practicing.’

And Mr. Cook is the only one I know who doesn’t blink when I say my coffee cake contains wild mulberries that I picked myself. I really think he’s one of the last great outdoorsmen, so to him there’s nothing strange about picking fruit off a tree. He grew up in nearby Asbury Park, NJ, a seaside city flanked by Deal Lake on its north and west ends. A natural lake that once flowed from the ocean, its expansive arteries and narrow, shady fingers stretching further west must have thoroughly enchanted adventurous boys in the 1920s and 30s, with no electronics or malls to distract them. He tells me he canoed every inch of that lake.

A fisherman to this day, when he was in his early 80s he regularly trekked out to Sandy Hook, about 1/2 an hour north, to teach kids how to fish. He still goes in September to pick beach plums, which he collects in a plastic grocery bag and presents to a friend who cooks them down into his very favorite kind of jelly.

He also likes to bag his own turkey for Thanksgiving. The rest of us go to Shop-Rite; Mr. Cook goes to Pennsylvania. He bundles up, packs a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sits down in the woods, and waits. And waits. I asked why it takes so long to get a turkey, and he said, ‘It’s because they’re smart, and very fast. You move just an inch, and they all fly up into the trees.’ We think of turkeys as being slow—in the head and otherwise—because if we have any association with them at all, it’s of farm turkeys. They’ve had all the brains bred out of them, and to add insult to injury, they can no longer fly, either. But wild birds, now—everything is intact. Sharp vision, sharp minds, and they can fly up to 55 mph.

I asked Mr. Cook if wild turkeys make good eating and his eyes lit up. ‘OH, yes,’ he says. ‘They make the best soup you ever had.’

Well, those are the times when he’s able to catch one. He says his Thanksgiving meal is always a 50/50 toss-up. Many’s the Thanksgiving when I’d call out to him, ‘So what’s for dinner?’ and he’d sigh and smirk and say: ‘Franks and beans.’

Independent, adventurous, happy with the little things in life. That’s him all over.

But my favorite image of Mr. Cook is one I have of him on the Fourth of July, in the evening, a few years ago. Just after dark, Asbury’s fireworks were visible over the trees south of us. I climbed out onto my roof just as they started and caught a glimpse of him on his tiny porch, on one of his white plastic chairs, watching and eating a dish of plain vanilla ice cream from Carvel.

Happy Fourth, everybody.

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I know Thanksgiving’s over. I also know you probably already have a favorite stuffing recipe—maybe a treasured heirloom, passed down through generations, or lovingly learned at your grandma’s knee, or clipped from Good Housekeeping, circa 1978.

Abandon it. This is all there is.

I could break down the elements of this stuffing to determine the science behind why it’s so yummy, how its unapologetically rich and salty ingredients come together to make it so addictive. But I think I’ll let it speak for itself.

My family used to make shovelsful of this stuff every year because we knew we were going to be eating it all morning and afternoon while we prepped the rest of the food. It sat in two enormous, low earthenware bowls on the oven’s warming plate, and we stuck our fingers into it every time we passed to watch the parade. To this day, I associate Mighty Mouse with the smell of toasted pignoles.

The greatest thing about this recipe, aside from the taste, is how quickly it comes together. It takes maybe half an hour, usually less. And it’s what Sara Moulton from Gourmet magazine would call ‘a dump recipe’, meaning it all ends up together and then you stir it and say ta-dahh.

My father invented this at least 40 years ago, and we have never, ever had any other stuffing. When I was a little kid I hated it because it was too spicy. Now I eat it like a stoned Rottweiler,  figuring it’s okay since I lost out on all of those years.

My sister wrote down the recipe for me maybe ten years ago. She was the one who made it in latter years. I’d come through my parents’ kitchen door and she wouldn’t say hello; instead, she’d walk up to me with a forkful of the stuff and say, ‘Tell me what this needs. I can’t taste it anymore.’ Once everything’s in the pan, you taste and tweak until it sings just right for you.

Go:

Semolina bread with sesame seeds, stale and broken into pieces, about 1.5 long loaves (I think it tastes better when pulled apart with your fingers rather than chopped, but we’ve established that I’m a heathen)

1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage with fennel seeds, uncooked

4-5 tablespoons Italian seasoning (it’s a bunch of dried herbs like rosemary and basil and others, all in one container. Get the kind without salt and pepper added.)

Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 pound, grated

Pignoles (pine nuts), 1/4 pound

6 eggs

2-3 good splashes of olive oil

Black pepper

In a big skillet, on medium heat, break up the sausage and partially cook it. In a big bowl, mix the bread, seasonings, 1/4 lb cheese, and eggs, and mix to blend.

Throw the stuff into the skillet with the sausage and mix to let it start soaking up the sausage drippings. Let it sit a couple of minutes, then use a spatula to turn it. The underside of the mixture should be nicely browned, thanks to the eggs. Break it up and let it sit another couple of minutes, turning it as needed, until it’s all browned.

Taste and add whatever it needs more of. I find it usually needs more cheese, and sometimes more pepper. (It doesn’t usually need salt because the cheese is salty.) If it gets too dry, add more olive oil or a bit of healthful turkey stock (even though you’re about to blow it with the diet today). Turn off the heat.

Put your pignoles in a shallow, heavy little pan over medium-low heat. Watch them and shake the pan every 15 seconds or so until browned. Toss them into the skillet with the rest of the stuffing and stir.

This is pretty much an all-purpose recipe—good hot, good cold, good room temp. Delicious stuffed in a turkey, in which case it gets soft and tender, delicious even if it never sees the inside of the bird. Really really good the next day, per my family’s tradition, on one of those sandwich-sized toasted English muffins with cold sliced turkey, lavish amounts of mayonnaise, hot bacon cooked extra crispy, and cranberry sauce.

One New Year’s Day my parents asked me over for dinner. I was a little under the weather and declined. They called back a few times, and each time I said no. Then my sister got on the phone.

‘Mom made stuffing.’

There was a pause.

‘THE stuffing?’

‘Yep.’

What can I say? I grabbed my box of Kleenex and got in the car.

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